All Our Yesterdays
When we are children we seldom think of the future. This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can. The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind
There are occasions when an Art form can transport you to an earlier time or another place. It might happen while watching a movie. Listening to music. Reading a book. Or looking at a painting. A couple of such ‘transportations’ happened to me recently.
The first was as I read, ‘Newcastle United Stole my Heart’ by Michael Chaplin. Chaplin’s father, Sid, penned mining stories of the northeast of England that were adapted into the musical play ‘Close the Coalhouse Door’ that I’ve mentioned in earlier Reflections. Michael, now in his seventies, wrote for the TV series, Act of Betrayal, Monarch of the Glen, Grafters, Dalziel and Pascoe and Wild at Heart as well as many theatre productions.
Michael has supported NUFC all his life, despite, as with all of us fellow NUFC supporters, all the trials and tribulations the club puts us through. We NUFC supporters are the embodiment of hope over expectation.
His book takes the reader on a six-decade journey, both through his life and his support of NUFC. Support that began a tad earlier than mine yet the feelings of which he writes are familiar.
Reading his description of games and players in the late 1960s and early 1970s brought back memories of my own trips to St James during the period before I left the northeast. Of my first visits with my father and him lifting me over the turnstile and then him slipping the gateman a shilling. The peanut sellers hurling small bags of peanuts up into the crowd and tanners raining back down in payment. The smell of tobacco, cut grass, and on colder days, the pungent smell of Deep Heat rubbed into footballer’s legs. My father’s name for it was horse liniment.
Some of the games of which Michael writes, I was also there to see. Unknowingly at the time suffering agony and ecstasy along with him. His stories also recalled to me those Saturdays when NUFC were playing away from home and my eagerly awaiting the football ‘pink’ within an hour or so of the match end. Then my devouring the match reports of the occasional triumph or, more often, failure of NUFC.
As happened to me, Michel’s career then took him away from the Northeast. Yet the ‘bug’ we had both caught was not cured. It was then to watching NUFC whenever and wherever possible. On grounds around the country and if overseas in bars and pubs that might show a NUFC game. In my case, the most memorable was a Sunday afternoon in a bar in Rome watching NUFC play Spurs, with a local Spurs supporters' group. They were incredibly happy when NUFC went 2:0 down and I was subject to much banter in both English and Italian. Their buoyant mood changed when NUFC ran out 3:2 winners with a last-minute goal.
I too have had to ‘sit on my hands’ while watching NUFC play away from home. And as with Michael not as successfully as we should have. At least in my case at a game at West Ham, I exploded with joy only at the first goal. A ‘friendly’ reminder by a home supporter persuaded me to stay silent when NUFC put the second away.
The book also reminded me that in my decades of watching NUFC, it wasn’t the FA Cup failures to lower league teams that hurt the most. The likes of Hereford, Stevenage or most recently Oxford. It was the decline in early 1996 from a 12-point lead atop the Premier League at Christmas 1995 to finishing second place to Man Utd.
The second activity that sent me tumbling back to my younger self was watching ‘Belfast’ last week. The semi-autographical film from Kenneth Branagh of his early days in that city.
My upbringing was not in Belfast, but anyone born in the mid-fifties and who grew up in a working-class terraced house environment will identify with much of the film. The relationships within and between families. Grandparents, aunties, uncles, and other relatives who lived only a few doors or a street away.
The banter offered by the film’s dialogue was instantly recognisable. The northeast of England did not have the religious divide of Belfast, Liverpool, or Glasgow. Still, there was a degree of anti-Irish / Catholic feeling as I grew up in the northeast. Stemming from the early 1900s when it was said the mine owners drafted Irish men to replace striking miners. The Irishmen were all incorrectly assumed to be Catholic.
I also spent many holidays in my early years visiting relatives in Glasgow. Green was never worn in my uncle’s home in which we stayed. He would not even allow his daughter to speak to a catholic. After his death, she married a catholic man. No doubt Uncle George will still be spinning in his grave. The phrase ‘which foot does he kick with’ was, therefore, a familiar one to me.
There is a scene in the film where our young hero goes to a Presbyterian church. The minister, standing high in the pulpit harangues the congregation in which the film’s young ‘hero’ sits wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
That was me at around the age of seven. My parents were not churchgoers. Before I appeared on the scene, they had married in my hometown’s Presbyterian church. This was because my mother, being divorced, could not then marry my father, a widower, in the Church of England. Lost to history, or at least my memory, is why I then went to Sunday School, and not my parents to church. Yet there I was. Part of a young congregation suffering the type of fire and brimstone torrent offered in Branagh’s film. A couple of doses of that, and I decided it wasn’t for me. The minister, on the other hand, thought otherwise.
A few days after my no-show, there was a knock on the door of my home. My mother opened the door, and there the imposing figure of the minister stood. Dressed in a long black cassock with around his waist an imposing brown belt.
He had come to enquire after my health as I had not attended church. After my mother reassured the minister that I was in robust health she mother that the minister might ask me directly why I had missed church. I crumpled, dear reader, and next Sunday was once again one of the faithful.
It wasn’t to last. A few weeks later, my parents and I agreed that I would walk the dog if they could get me out of going to church.
Branagh’s film is romanticised. Yet, I would heartily recommend it to people. The setting may be in a time past and in a place of conflict, but its universal theme is relationships. The young to the old. Between those of different beliefs. Within the family and across families. Of friends and adversaries. A funny, poignant, and thoughtful insight into the bittersweetness of life.